How my GPS watch makes me a better runner

Athlete Sally Cohen Stilwell explains how a smartwatch helps her reach her fitness goals.

 

Sally Cohen Stilwell calls running her therapy. She started running in 2006, and has since completed seven full marathons and more than 35 half marathons. "I’m a slower runner but love long distances," she says.

Wearable technology has helped Sally keep pace with her running program over the years. She started wearing a GPS watch when she entered her first race—many of her running friends had them, and said they were a good tool for training. From then on, she was hooked on the data. Today, her go-to wearable is the Garmin Forerunner 25 watch. "I always say I feel 'naked' when I don’t have my watch," she says.

We spoke to Sally to find out how her trusty GPS watch has helped her learn more about herself as a runner.

How exactly does the watch help you during a training run?

All the information I want to see can be viewed by three screens on the watch toggling from one to the other. I usually keep overall time and distance displayed. After every mile, it will flash my pace for that mile just completed. Another way is if I need to run a six-miler and I’m not in an area I usually run in, when the watch says I’ve run three miles, I can just backtrack to get that six miles without going too far or not far enough.

When I get home, I connect it to my computer and then the data gets uploaded to Garmin’s app Garmin Connect. [There are newer model Garmin GPS watches that will automatically transfer the data via WiFi.]

Do you find it to be more accurate that other tech,like an app on a smartphone?

GPS is much more accurate for tracking distance and therefore I have a clearer picture of my pace. I used to use Runkeeper, which is a smartphone app, but the GPS watch is far more accurate. 

Can you explain how it’s different than a fitness tracker? 

It’s different because it is using GPS to track your distance and overall time, giving you a pace per mile that’s really important for training for running events. I have learned to run by feel, but the data is there to confirm that I am running an easy pace, a fast pace, etc.

Fitness trackers really do a better job at tracking your movement, steps and sleep, so I do use one of those as well—the Vivofit. This is extremely important to keeping my muscles loose for running. Since my job as a freelance graphic designer requires me to sit so much, I often get tense and tight. The tracker reminds me to move every so often by beeping at me and that's when I take the opportunity to walk the dog or just toss my headphones on and walk around the neighborhood for a bit.

I also love data. Because my fitness tracker is also from Garmin, the data feeds into the same app as the watch, giving me the big picture of both my movement for health throughout the day, and my specific running training data. So basically I think the tracker helps me compliment my running. 

How does your watch help you during a race?

When running a race, I’ll glance down at the watch periodically to see my pace or distance. Sometimes I’ll see I’m running too fast and I better slow down to reserve energy for the later miles in a race. But I try not to rely too much on it during a race. Some runners I know actually put masking tape over the face of the watch. They get the best of both worlds—they can track their data to review later on, but not let the numbers get in the way of running by feel.

Has your GPS watch taught you anything surprising about your training and habits?

Some of the things I've learned are that the weather really impacts my running. Rain tends to make me run faster. Probably because I just want to get home and into dry clothes. I've learned that summer evening runs are also faster for me. It's really the only time I'll run after dark so while my neighborhood is very safe, I think I have that similar internal thing happening that I want to get home fast. I also have discovered that my optimal time of day to run is late morning. When all of my running times slow drastically, I know it's time to take a break.

Any other cool features on the watch worth highlighting?

My watch model doesn't measure heart rate, but it does measure cadence and that's a cool feature. It's really a fantastic way to see my progress since it tracks how many steps you take per minute. It can help me see if I'm keeping a good pace.

Any tips for runners considering a GPS watch?

If you plan to run for any duration more than five hours, look at the battery life listed for the model you are interested in. The basic "holy trinity" for me is really just pace, distance and duration, but higher models have extra bells and whistles. Some also have lighted screens for if you like to run at night or before sunrise.

Follow Sally's blog, Sweat Out the Small Stuff, to learn more about her running adventures.

 

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